Astrology, Astronomy, and Exaltations


Tonight, I was listening to Kenneth Bowser talk about Western Sidereal Astrology on Chris Brennan’s show, The Astrology Podcastin episode 117.

Near the end of the show, they’re talking about The Exaltation Solution: the work of Irish astrologer Cyril Fagan, who found that in the year 786 BC, the planets rose or set helically (that is, either just before or just after the sunset) in their degrees of exaltation, or entered or exited retrogrades at what we now know as their degrees of exaltation. Cyril Fagan explored this in a book titled Zodiacs Old and New published in 1950, part of his (Fagan’s) long-standing effort to get Western astrologers to switch over from a tropical zodiac to a sidereal zodiac.

Chris Brennan pushed back, as she should have, on the absence of textual support for why this particular year should be so important — all of the planets rising or setting not on the same day as a degree of exaltation, but over the course of a year.  Fagan thought that this year marked the completion and consecration of a temple to the Mesopotamian deity associated with the planet Mercury; Kenneth Bowser was arguing for astrologers to use the sidereal zodiac, and that the use of the sidereal zodiac makes the degrees of exaltation correct.

That’s fine, as far as it goes. But it doesn’t explain the idea of the Degree of Exaltation. Every visible planet in astrology — Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn — has one specific degree where it’s regarded as particularly strong. As they enter the specific Zodiac sign of their exaltation, they begin growing stronger and stronger until they reach their actual degree of exaltation. Then their power wanes from that particular height.  Those degrees are

  1. Moon: 3rd degree of Taurus
  2. Mercury: 15th degree of Virgo
  3. Venus: 27th degree of Pisces
  4. the Sun:  19th degree of Aries
  5. Mars: 28th degree of Capricorn
  6. Jupiter: 15th degree of Cancer
  7. Saturn: 21st degree of Libra

As I listened to the two of them debate, each of them missing the points the other was making, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and a sudden wave of gnosis or of awen came over me.  I said aloud, in my car on the darkened road, “I know exactly why those are the degrees of exaltation. I can’t prove it, but I know.”  I nearly ran off the road, such was my certainty.


Headed in winter

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A few months ago, I wrote about the Headless One rite from Gordon’s book, The Chaos Protocols.

And, having experienced the moment of the Sun on the shoulders of Orion, it seemed appropriate to wait until the the opposite moment, when the Moon sat on the shoulders of Orion just before the Midwinter.

Alas. It’s cloudy here.  So you’ll have to make do with a screen capture from the app StarWalk2, showing the position of the Moon slightly above the horizon, and forming an alignment of sorts with the theoretical head the great hunter.  Ah, the wonders of modern technology.

Of course, I gushed about it on social media a little, because it feels important; those who seem to make Orion an important part of their experience of the night sky reported in that it felt a little more powerful, a little more changed tonight, than on other nights.  I’m not trying to re-start Neolithic religion here, Gordon, I promise — but wow.  It did feel like a different night than usual, for sure.

And some of that is on me. On us.  I mean, if we moderns invest our time and attention on things like this moment, then it becomes important. Not because it was important then, (though it may have been), but because it is important to us now.

My father was a navigator for the US Naval Air Service, back in the day.  I spoke with him tonight, and I mentioned that I was a little excited about this moment when Orion wore the Moon like a helmet, or a crown.  And I could almost hear his shrug over the phone.

“Sure,” he said. “The full Moon before the winter solstice, when Aldebaran is right there… we used to use that as a homing signal on flights over the Pacific.  It’s a stunning sight, isn’t it?”

And the wind died in my sails a bit. Because of course a Pacific navigator would know about such things.  My father and his squadron mates were flying by the island-hopping method from central California to Saigon and back, or from California to Alaska and back, all through the 1960s.  Flight or ocean-going, the winds and tides and placement of islands and placement of stars were always on their mind.  So has it ever been. So will it always be, for as long as the Pacific is navigable, I suspect — the navigators will always know more than the ordinary folks, and sometimes the ordinary folks know more than the magicians.

The moon came out a little bit, and I was able to snap a quick photo of her through the branches of the trees.  She’s a stunning sight, wreathed in fog and crowned (or perhaps more than usual, bodied) with stars.

It was cold outside, of course.  The act of standing on my porch and breathing also seemed to awaken something in the dogs down the street, who were exceptionally interested in barking at something.  There’s a threat of snow tonight, and the outside walks are slippery with black ice.  I don’t wish to put down salt if I don’t have to, either — there’s a brook close by, and who wants to make things difficult for the land so soon after moving in?   And inside was so tempting, so very tempting.  The fire in the wood stove leapt to life mere moments after my candles were lit and I lifted my voice to say some old, old words of greeting.

I found some ways of celebrating, of course. Because sometimes it’s better to light some candles than curse the darkness.

The Headless One


Last year, lots of people in the magical community got hugely excited about Gordon White’s book The Chaos Protocols and the hugely relevant and powerful Star.Ships (which I reviewed here).  Gordon is of course the author of the moderately-successful chaos magic blog, Rune Soup. So did I, but due to events in my life it was impossible for me to write about my experiences with the Headless Rite.

And I kind of made what feels like a relevant discovery. More

Poem: For the Sun’s Exaltation


Thanks to Christopher Warnock, I know that Friday the Sun will be in its astrological exaltation, at Aries 18-19 degrees. There’s a whole bunch of ceremonial instructions appropriate to the day, and for the image of the talisman — something about a dancing woman with staff and various symbols around her… You can look it up on his site. For myself, I’m working on one of the most complicated sketches I’ve done to date. I have to admit, I’m not sure it will be worthwhile when it’s done. The learning is important, sure, but sometimes the product is important too. Both, in this case.

In the meantime, though, I have to write poetry for the day, too. And I have a particular poem in mind for this, an invocational ode for the Sun’s exaltation. But they’re harder to write. So I began early, and I’ll finish it during the local time window on Friday, which for me is local solar noon. Thanks to Freeman Preson, I know this is 12:38-12:55 pm for me, but it may be different for you.

[update: I’ve been reminded that April 8 is the day that the Sun is actually in its Exaltation… But that there is not a suitable hour of the Sun on Monday, April 8. So you can use this on Monday or Friday just before 1pm local time, wherever you may be.]

Hail to you, great Sun, in Exaltation!
Prince of planets, agile and clad in grace!
You stand in beauty, lord of Creation,
And every world around you keeps its place:
You are Lord and we but followers are —
Intemperate when you are in a rage,
Yet calm when you stoop to ripening grapes;
firey when you set forth in Dawn’s car,
weary as you approach old Twilight’s cage:
Thus has it been since our fathers were apes,

And spirit had not deigned to touch mortal!
Great Eye of Nature and the Seasons’ King —
Dancing lady supreme in your power —
As your chariot passes this portal,
And all your supplicants your praises sing:
Cause all our works to sprout and then flower.
Drive us on like your own coursers of flame,
To work with majesty, power and skill —
To mirror below, your own Ageless Name,
With deeds of illumined unwearied will.

Let those who empower our work this day,
And meet you, Sun, with our own best deeds—
Cause kings and princes to kneel at our doors!
Propitious bless our works with gracious ray,
Make fortunate our quests for wants and needs,
And guide us through rough seas to golden shores!
Mighty are your works, Source of Ageless Light,
Giver of justice and the good one’s guide:
The life of all living grows in your sight,
and none can match your celestial ride.

I may make some changes between now and Friday, but I think that’s the core of it. Altering poetry with both rhyme and metrical schemes is always hard, but it’s sometimes worth future editing.


Fifth Astrolabe Verso

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Fifth Astrolabe Verso
Originally uploaded by anselm23

Via Flickr:
Here are two photos of my fifth astrolabe. And here’s what I’ve learned about building astrolabes. If you don’t start with the simplest one, you’ll never have the patience to build this most complex one.

The simplest one is the quadrant. It’s four parts: a straw, a string, a cardboard, and a weight. It can be built in 15 minutes and employed in 25, if you wait a little while for the glue to dry.  This took more than an hour, and I didn’t realize until the end that I’d built it of the wrong materials.  If I’d discovered that in the first fifteen minutes — I still would have done it all the way to the end, but it might have taken less time.

This one, I built out of foamcore. Wrong material, first of all. It cuts wrong and it’s unreliable. Heavy cardstock or light cardboard would have been better. The rete is a sheet of acetate; but again, a thin sheet of cardstock with some holes cut in it would have been a better choice. The rule and the alidade — again, heavier cardstock would have been fine. Easier to get a precise point.

On the other hand, this model is weightier than the others, befitting its more complex design. I can calculate the unequal hours of the day, also called the Chaldean hours or the Planetary Hours. I can calculate the position of the Sun if I know the date, or the position of major stars to tell the time at night, or the Mansions of the Moon, or the height of a tower or flagpole or tree.

And all this with the cruddy “first draft” of the model I made using the printouts from (This astrolabe, by the way, is absolutely BEAUTIFUL.  The lines and traceries are elegant, the directions on how to use it are clear, and the modeling is exquisite.  It’s just… difficult… to get it to come out right on foamcore.  Better luck for me next time, right?

Fifth Astrolabe Recto

Fifth Astrolabe — recto

That said, there are some improvements I would like to make. I’d love to see the Mater verso and rectoproduced as an .stl file for a ShopBot to rout out. I’d love to see a rete produced the same way, that could “nest” inside the mater, and thin but rigid alidades and rules. Cardstock and cardboard may be ok in the next draft, but I’m really thinking metal or wood next time around.

My friend Daniel S. says it is critical to build your prototypes all the way to the end. Doing so has taught me a lot about materials and about cutting precision lines. I have a much better sense of how I’ll build these next time: thick cardboard mater; lighter cardboard rete, cardstock rule and alidade; sharp knife and scissors, smaller hand drill, steel ruler.

If and when I ever guide students through this process, build all five astrolabes… And build a compass and a model caravel, too. Come to think of it.

Four Astrolabes, Prototyping and Discovery


Cardboard Navigation
Originally uploaded by anselm23

Today was supposed to be for grading papers. But it turned out to be a day for building astrolabes. I built four, using PDF kits I found online, cardboard left over from the Makedo challenge, and a a few sheets of paper (and an almost nicked thumb from a dull Xacto blade… curiously enough, scissors almost work better.

Why? My history classes are learning about the American Revolution. My Latin classes are studying uses of the Infinitive, and the formation of adjectives. Astrolabes don’t fit into either part of the curriculum.

Ah… but they do fit into the design lab. I think. I mean, here’s a complex medieval instrument for discerning the passage of time, the movement of the heavens, and uncovering the geometry of the worlds above the earth. It’s eminently practical — Columbus probably used one to cross the Atlantic and estimate his position day-to-day. And yet it’s a relic of an ancient age: the first was invented by Hipparchus in ancient Greece almost two thousand years ago, back when people thought planets were Gods. Building one of these even as recently as eight hundred years ago required days of a geometer’s time and the labor of several skilled craftsmen, to make sure the numbers were correct and that the lines were in the correct position… too many things could go wrong. They were slide rules and calendars, calculators and protractors, elaborate devices for knowing one’s place in the world. To use one, you had to know how to use one; to know how to use one, you had to practice with one. A bit of a catch-22, but right in line with the designer’s maxim, “build to learn.”

Here’s a video about using the Astrolabe, using a TED talk:

Fourth Astrolabe

fourth astrolabe

Although each design that I built was more complicated than the last, by the end I had a pretty good idea how each device worked, and how I could use it in the classroom, or convince a mathematics or science teacher to use it in the classroom. They’re not fantastically complex tools, but they enable one to do trigonometry fairly easily — provided you know trigonometry. Don’t know trigonometry? Don’t worry… you can be taught, with the help of an astrolabe.

Hmm. Is this a way to open up advanced mathematics to younger students?

Via Flickr:
I tried really hard during my free periods today to grade papers. But the design lab called: I’ve been thinking about stars for a whole lot of time now, and how to integrate the study of astronomy into a school program that only meets during the day. And, of course, how to include mathematics in a history class. And, of course, how to include history in a math class.

The answer is astrolabes. Of course they’re outdated technology. They were the great grandparents of slide rules when slide rules were invented. They were practically second cousins of the abacus.

Today I downloaded three basic models of them and made them.

Here they are:

You paste a printout onto cardboard (cereal boxes work great), and with an hour’s work you have an astrolabe similar to the one Geoffrey Chaucer described in the first technical manual in English, “treatise on the astrolabe”, written in (I think) 1391 AD.

These two are simple. They require glue, printouts, and a knife. In a classroom environment they’d need to be spread over two days — one day to glue the paper sheets down to the cardboard, and then some drying time; followed by a day to do the cutouts. The one on the left is a little more elaborate. The third one, above, is a quadrant rather than a true astrolabe… but the principle is the same. Teach a class the second day on sun sighting, or calculating the height of a flagpole. Extrapolate to sighting stars on the deck of a ship in the midst of the heaving Atlantic Ocean, and you have a seriously cool lesson about the Age of Exploration.

But only if you have willing teachers in Mathematics and history classes. You can combine it with a lesson about globes, using an icosahedron made of paper plates and a Buckminster Fuller projection of the Earth. But only if you have willing students and instructors.

Today they’re only mathematical toys. But in the late Renaissance, they were the tools of empire. And they could be the tools of a student’s modern day empire of learning if we taught students to build and use them.

Seeing the Ecliptic

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Seeing the Ecliptic

Originally uploaded by anselm23

Our world is filled with imaginary yet real things. The ecliptic — the imaginary line along which the planets skate across the sky — is one such imaginary thing that nonetheless has a good deal to tell us about the world. This line is semi-visible in this photo: by tracking the three objects across the night sky, you can sense how the Sun traveled this same line earlier in the day, and now it’s the chance for the planets to show up the Sun along the same line. Few things ever helped me see the beauty in the existing universe so much as being able to pick out this line in the night, and know that the world had an order and a beauty to it that I could only dream of.

Via Flickr:
It’s rare for me to get good pictures of the night sky. My camera just isn’t good enough. But on February 23, I got this picture of the Moon (bottom), Jupiter (upper left), and Venus (middle) just a little after sundown. It’s such a beautiful way of seeing the ecliptic — the line imagined across the sky, along which the planets travel — that I couldn’t resist snapping the photo.

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